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Maryland Proton Treatment Center to become non-profit

Doctors at the Maryland Proton Treatment Center say they plan to transition from a for-profit to a non-profit operation to free up dollars for new technology and research.

The University of Maryland-affiliated center opened last year at the West Baltimore BioPark and uses specialized machinery to zap cancers that are hard to reach or require high doses. Precise rays spare healthy tissue on the path to the tumors and reduce side effects.

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Only a couple of dozen such centers operate nationwide, as they require upwards of a $200 million investment and research has yet to uncover the full range of cancers that would benefit from proton treatment. More than a decade ago, University of Maryland doctors were approached by investors with California-based Advanced Particle Therapy, which already had opened a center in San Diego, about developing a Baltimore center.

Dr. William F. Regine, chair of the School of Medicine's department of radiation oncology, jumped at the chance to bring technology to patients who faced limited treatment options. About 60 percent of cancer patients receive radiation treatment, usually alongside surgery and chemotherapy, and he figured about a fifth of them would likely benefit.

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About 60 percent of all cancer patients have radiation, and though dozens of studies are still in the works to understand who may benefit most from protons, the promise of the more precise technology has lead to a boom in construction of the costly facilities and interest from patients who hope to for better outcomes and fewer side effects

But Regine, who now serves as the center’s executive director, said it soon became clear that the for-profit status, while necessary to launch the center, would bind the center financially and limit reinvestment. The center plans to use tax-exempt municipal bonds to repay the investors and transition as soon as May. By paying off the old debt and taking on new debt through bonds, the center will stretch out payments over many more years and have more cash available.

In the meantime, the center will continue to ramp up and attract more patients. Already, it partners with several healthcare systems in the multi-state region and can see about 75 people a day. About 90 or 100 would make the center financially stable over time.

“In a for-profit model what happens is … the priority is a return to investors,” he said. “Non-profit is a better fit for a center linked to a highly recognized academic research program. This will allow us to change our priorities.”

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